Early Dog Memories

I once visited with a family friend whom I hadn't seen for more than 20 years, someone who had known my family and me since I was about four years old. One of the first things he said to me was, Do you still have dogs? You always had a dog or three with youÂ…""

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At the time of this visit, I hadn’t yet started editing WDJ; I was a horse magazine editor – my entire professional career had been about horses (and journalism) and my hobbies were very horse-based. So I rolled my eyes at my long-estranged friend. “I have a dog, but I mean, I have a lot more to do with horses now…”

Despite my kneejerk denial, he was right. I have been hanging out with dogs for as long as I can remember. Though neither of my parents grew up with dogs, they both loved dogs and were suckers when their four children all turned out to be dog lovers, too, and wanted their very own dogs. Because my three siblings are five, six, and seven years older than me, by the time I came along, we already had a house full of dogs. And, again because my siblings are older, by the time I wanted someone to play with, they didn’t really want to play with me – it makes sense; what 10, 11, and 12 year old wants to play with a five year old? – so I entertained myself by playing with the dogs!

But I don’t have a specific “first” memory of a dog. In my mind, they were just always around, and I felt about them like I felt about my own siblings. I loved them and enjoyed their company. When I was four, my parents moved from a suburb to a home in the country, and there were no kids my age close by. I spent most of my non-school hours with the dogs: building forts in the garden, exploring foot paths along the creek that ran along one side of our property, wading in the creek in the summer, or just lounging around surrounded by dogs. They seemed happy to have a little human companion to explore with, too.

As much as my parents loved dogs, they never seemed to research anything about them. We fed the dogs cheap food from the (livestock) feed store, a pelleted food that looked just like the chicken feed we also bought there. I don’t remember any of the dogs wearing collars. We had an outdoor dog pen with a dog house in it, but I don’t remember the dogs being locked in it very often; like all the pet dogs in our rural area, they ran free – and like all the pet dogs in our area, were frequently killed by cars on the main two-lane road that ran through our valley. (Working ranch dogs were always penned or chained somewhere on their owner’ property. They were too valuable to run free.)

And none of the dogs were altered! Welcome to rural California, circa 1970! One summer (joyous for me) we had three litters of (unplanned, uncontrolled) mixed-breed puppies born to our dogs at about the same time. It wasn’t my fault, I was just a little kid, but maybe all my shelter volunteerism comes from some residual guilt about all those canine lives so randomly created and given away.

One of those mother dogs was a Lab-mix. Perhaps crowded by the other two dog moms, she moved her puppies one night to a location underneath a huge bank of blackberry vines near the creek. She still showed up at our back door for meals, but as soon as she ate, she’d make a beeline for the blackberries and would slither along the ground back into the tangle. When the puppies were about five weeks old, my mom ordered my 12-year-old brother (and he recruited some of his friends) to crawl on their bellies into the vines and retrieve the puppies, before they grew up feral. I’ll never forget the excitement of seeing them pass one puppy after another out of the vines; it was like seeing them born all over again, but instead of slimy and blind, they were fully formed, interactive little dogs!

Later, when I was in high school, and my siblings were all out of the house, I started researching proper dog care. I arranged for all the family dogs – including those left behind by my siblings, whether due to college housing or bad boyfriends or whatever – to be altered. I asked my parents to buy kennels and installed them in our yard, went to the landscaping supply store and bought pea gravel to put in the runs, and made sure that the dogs were locked up or in the house at night; ending the long run of “HBC” (hit by car) incidents in our family. I took the dogs to the vet for their vaccinations and kept collars with ID on them. And, yes, when I went places, as my family friend recalled, I almost always took my own dogs with me! I didn’t trust my parents to be as responsible with my dogs as they had always been with the family dogs!

The family friend who had last seen me when I was about 18 has since had the grace not to rub my nose in the fact that now my life is all about dogs, all the time. I own, recreate with, foster, dog-sit, and transport dogs, and of course, my job is all about dogs. My family today makes fun of the fact that even when we take a dog-free vacation, if I see a dog and have a camera in my hand, I abandon my family and run to take pictures, so I have files and files of photos of dogs in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, Hawaii, Germany, Italy, Greece, Canada – anywhere my son or stepkids live or have lived or where we went on vacation together. In Pompeii, others marveled at the ruins; I was fascinated with the packs of feral dogs that expertly worked the tourists, attaching themselves to each new group descending from the tour buses, begging for treats. And I have frequent opportunities to use these random photos for WDJ, so my “ditch the family for dog photos” habit is reinforced.

Anyway, what about you? Did you grow up with dogs or find them later? What are your earliest dog memories?

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